Psychology of Social Connection

Perspective-Taking in Romantic Relationships

April 1st, 2021 · 5 Comments

[Tyler]

My quarantine has been spent watching a lot of reality TV. Specifically, romantic shows such as Love is Blind, Married at First Sight, and the Bachelor. There are so many different iterations of shows asking you to watch two people fall in love and stick around to see if their relationship lasts. Clearly there is something intriguing about watching a romantic relationship develop and seeing the drama play out. While watching, we get to see the heartbreak but also the blossoming of new love. A staple of these shows is the interviews where each person shares their thoughts on the state of the relationship. Often, these thoughts involve trying to figure out whether their love interest likes them back and in general trying to understand the others’ perspective. 

This makes sense because perspective-taking is a critical part of any relationship. Perspective-taking involves stepping into the mind of another person to understand what they are thinking and feeling. In romantic relationships, perspective-taking occurs all throughout the course of the relationship. From the beginning, both parties are trying to identify whether their interest in the other is reciprocated. Rejection hurts and can be extremely uncomfortable. Even though we might try hard to figure out what someone else is thinking, it is really difficult for us to accurately identify their thoughts and feelings especially in regards to romantic relationships. Bohns & DeVincent (2019) found that those who initiate romantic relationships underestimate how difficult it is for the other person to reject their advances. While I was watching the Bachelor, I could palpably feel this discomfort every time Matt James sent girls home. The girls were also very disappointed and upset and I imagine they would have trouble empathizing with Matt’s position.

Perspective-taking is important throughout the relationship as well. Understanding your partner’s perspective is crucial for the well-being of romantic relationships (Ramezani et al. 2020). The reality TV shows take advantage of this fact by inserting uncertainty into the plots of the show. For example, in Love is Blind, the couples are engaged throughout the show and must decide at the altar whether to say I do. This creates a tension between the couples as they try to figure out what their partner is going to say when they get to the wedding. Similarly, in Married at First Sight, the couples are married and must decide at the end of the show whether to stay married or get divorced. Oftentimes you can tell who will reject their partner and who will feel blindsided by the rejection. It can still be heartbreaking to watch as someone realizes that their view of the relationship was very different from their partner’s view of the relationship. Luckily perspective-taking and empathy can be improved through Theory of Mind training as evidenced in the Ramezani et al. (2020) paper. Theory of Mind training involves teaching couples how to identify mental states so that they can learn to understand the mental states of their partners (Ramezani et al. 2020). While this would be the healthiest for these relationships, I don’t think it would not be as entertaining for the audience.

 

[Yufeng]

As mentioned above, romantic relationships do require high demand for perspective-taking and empathy abilities, becoming even harder when it comes to the affective forecasting part. Namely, when we have a crush on someone, whether we can accurately predict if they have similar feelings to us; or whether we can wisely step out when the others show no interest in us through their implicit cues, is very important but troublesome to us. 

We may sometimes wonder why we keep regretfully missing someone we care about in the crowds without forming a stronger bond with him/her. In the series Sex Education, which narrates a teenage boy Otis with a sex therapist mother teams up with his high school classmate Maeve to set up an underground sex therapy clinic at school, Maeve and Otis soon realize that they share far more in common than they had originally thought and secretly develop romantic feelings for one another. However, neither of them acts on their impulses out of fear that the other does not feel the same way, and they end up passing by each other while forming romantic relationships with others (watch here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9DenrhhJkZM ). 

Whenever you encounter this kind of situation, do not overly blame yourself and regard it as common. We do desire one day we can have some magic power to predict the significant others’ feelings, which we cannot possibly get. However, there are still some ways to improve our forecasting accuracy to some extent.

 

Part 1: Causes

To begin with, I want to mention some of the nature behind the affective forecasting process towards the one we like. When we experience the feelings of desperately desiring someone, admittedly it is partially attributed to their physical attractiveness, personality and probably similarity and complementarity. Nevertheless, have you ever thought about the uncertainty itself of whether they like us can increase romantic attraction, which can be exemplified by an experiment, of which the female participants in the uncertain condition were most attracted to the men – even more attracted than were participants who were told that the men liked them a lot(Erin R. Whitchurch, 2011). After that, the attraction along with our perceived rarity, acting as an incentive, will influence our affective forecasting and then our motivation. 

Honestly, it interests me firstly regarding why people sometimes flinch, facing the attraction, even though performing actively can significantly increase the possibility of success. It is reminiscent of people’s fear of being rejected, rejection sensitivity, as we’ve talked about in the class. Interestingly, to dig it deeper, I found the subjective expected pleasure theory. Especially when the unobtained outcome is more desirable, the anticipated pleasure about the obtained outcome declines because people anticipate disappointment when they imagine getting the worse outcome or anticipate regret when they imagine having made the wrong choice. Moreover, as for the forecasting process, the displeasure of getting the worst of two outcomes is typically greater in magnitude than the pleasure of receiving the better outcome(Barbara A. Mellers 2001). In other words, people tend to imagine possible bad outcomes more negatively than they originally are. Along with this, the anticipated pleasure will determine our next steps of decision-making(Barbara A. Mellers 2001). 

The next question comes to what causes the misperception. The signal detection theory (SDT) describes this as the sensitivity of distinguishing sexual intent cues from friendly cues (Figure 1). Specifically, the insensitive one can perceive more overlaps between the friendly cues and sexually interested cues. It should be highlighted that these sensitivity variances are not only due to inheritable or gender differences, but also due to stimulus such as clothing style, dating variables, alcohol, attractiveness(Farris et al., 2008) etc.. According to this theory, misperception may arise from people’s different signal detection sensitivity. For instance, the insensitive one (panel a) cannot distinguish the large parts of the overlap, when dating a sensitive one (panel b). Additionally, decision criteria can also affect the outcomes (Figure 2). For instance, the liberal one (point a) may mistake some friendly cues as sexual intent cues, while the conservative one (point b) may neglect some sexual intent cues as friendly cues. This can explain why males perceive both males and females as having more sexual interest than do females – their perception thresholds are different. Evolutionary theorists have suggested that men’s reproductive goals are better achieved by over-perceiving (lower threshold) rather than underperceiving women’s level of sexual interest(Parkhill, 2015). Overall, the bias will result in the misperception and I hypothesize that the misperception outcomes will in turn influence the sensitivity due to the close relationship between rejection and self-evaluation. 

 

Figure 1. Normal probability distributions representing perception of friendliness and sexual interest. Panel a depicts the perceptual distributions of an individual who is relatively insensitive to the difference between friendliness and sexual interest. Panel b depicts the perceptual distributions of a more sensitive individual(Farris et al., 2008). 

 

Figure 2. Normal probability distributions representing perception of friendliness and sexual interest. Decision criterion points are depicted to illustrate decisional bias. Point ‘A’ represents a liberal criterion; point ‘B’ represents a conservative criterion(Farris et al., 2008).

 

Part 2: Solutions

Even though it is pretty hard to maintain accurate affective forecasting, we still can figure out some possible solutions based on those findings. For instance, we should know clearly the uncertainty feelings can give us certain kinds of illusions, to avoid suffering from obsessive love disorder. 

Plus, we should consider the possible effects of SDT if we always step into misperception. To be more specific, we should deliberately know more about others’ perspectives, especially the significant other you are dating with. According to the research, even though people can more accurately predict their affective reactions to a future event when they know how a neighbor in their social network reacted to the event than when they know about the event itself or some predictions of the observers(Gilbert et al., 2009), they are still more prone to conjure an inaccurate vision based on the presence of event information(Knowing, 2009). Thus, the takeaway is that we should forecast based on the actual feelings of surrogates currently experiencing the event or neighbors/observers’ advice. 

On top of that, despite of the subjective expected pleasure theory, we still can mentally subtract positive events to improve our affective state, according to the evidence that Internet respondents and university staff members who wrote about how they might never have met their romantic partner were more satisfied with their relationship than were those who wrote about how they did meet their partner(Koo et al., 2008).

Finally, never overlook the beneficial consequences for mood by actively engaging in positive self-representation, even to strangers, because The failure to recognize the affective benefits of putting one’s best face forward may underlie forecasting errors regarding the emotional consequences of the most common forms of social interactions(Dunn et al., 2007).

 

References

Barbara A. Mellers , A. P. M. (2001). Anticipated Emotions as Guides to Choice. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6). 

 

Bohns, V. K., & DeVincent, L. A. (2019). Rejecting unwanted romantic advances is more difficult than suitors realize. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(8), 1102-1110.

 

Dunn, E. W., Biesanz, J. C., Human, L. J., & Finn, S. (2007, Jun). Misunderstanding the affective consequences of everyday social interactions: the hidden benefits of putting one’s best face forward. J Pers Soc Psychol, 92(6), 990-1005. Erin R. Whitchurch, T. D. W. a. D. T. G. (2011). ”He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . . ”: Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction. Psychological Science(22), 172. 

 

Farris, C., Treat, T. A., Viken, R. J., & McFall, R. M. (2008, Jan). Sexual coercion and the misperception of sexual intent. Clin Psychol Rev, 28(1), 48-66. Gilbert, D. T., Killingsworth, M. A., Eyre, R. N., & Wilson, T. D. (2009, Mar 20). The surprising power of neighborly advice. Science, 323(5921), 1617-1619. Knowing, M. I. v. Y. F. C. P. A. F. B. I. B. (2009). My Imagination vs. Your Feelings: Can Personal Affective Forecasts Be Improved By Knowing. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 15(4), 351-360. 

 

Koo, M., Algoe, S. B., Wilson, T. D., & Gilbert, D. T. (2008, Nov). It’s a wonderful life: mentally subtracting positive events improves people’s affective states, contrary to their affective forecasts. J Pers Soc Psychol, 95(5), 1217-1224. Parkhill, A. J. J.-T. A. A. M. R. (2015). Why Do Some Men Misperceive Women’s Sexual Intentions More Frequently Than Others Do? An Application of the Confluence Model. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 

 

Ramezani, A., Ghamari, M., Jafari, A., & Aghdam, G. F. (2020). The effectiveness of a Theory of Mind (ToM) training program in promoting empathy between married couples. Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, 19(1), 1-25.

 

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Lara // Apr 1st 2021 at 8:27 pm

    The concept of scripted reality, or full reality TV, that creates revenue from watching other people develop and maintain relationships has always felt weird and intrusive to me. So, unlike you, Tyler, I have never enjoyed watching these shows, but I can see how they can be enticing. I always feel like I’m intruding into something that’s very personal and somewhat holy; kind of like human connection and building a deep relationship with someone is one of those non-visible, organic, and magical things that develop over time in a mysterious way. I don’t like the concept of reality TV where they try to grow authentic relationships inorganically, under the microscope of cameras and the public eye. I wonder if my adversity towards reality TV might be a natural, evolutionary-ingrained response toward something that feels distrustful and inauthentic? And, from an extreme evolutionary perspective, maybe even a potential threat to survival? Yufeng, your argument regarding Sex Education’s Otis and Maeve not acting on their feelings reminds me of our group discussion in class today. Presenting vulnerability in the form of opening up about your feelings when you do not know how the other person feels and will react appears to me like a cost-benefit analysis. Making sure that the benefits of deciding to share your feelings for someone outweighs the risk of rejection goes through at least my mind before making a choice to act or not. Interestingly, this reduces psychological interactions to an economic model. In accordance, I wonder if a mediating factor of this could be level of self-esteem or other social support from non-romantic relationships that make you more buffered to rejection and, thus, more likely to take the risk and ignore the potential costs? -Lara

  • Ari // Apr 2nd 2021 at 1:09 pm

    When watching some of the shows Tyler mention, specifically the Bachelor/ette, the new bachelor or bachelorette always underestimates how hard it is to be in their position. They come in with an idea of how difficult it will be but I have never heard anyone say their initial idea matches up with reality. To me, this demonstrates the idea that no matter how much we think we know we are often so far from the real experience, particularly when we are inexperienced. I think this also builds off of Yufeng’s point about the inability to distinguish between friendly and sexually interested cues and perception differences between genders. This reminded me about the reproduction of kangaroos. In kangaroos, females may have a joey out of her pouch, one inside the pouch, and a fertilized embryo “paused” in the uterus. After a joey leaves the pouch, another one is usually born just days later. With that kind of back to back maternal care, I can see why females generally perceive others as having less sexual interest when compared to males. With a turnaround time like that, there’s always someone to take care of.
    -Ari

  • Tess // Apr 4th 2021 at 8:55 pm

    Wow I have so many feelings about reality TV shows (and honestly any TV shows) that center around watching people fall in love– surprise surprise I love them. I’ve always thought its super interesting to digest why we love shows like this– are they actually teaching us some of these mind perception techniques and picking up on cues so that we can see them more in our own lives? Probably not, but maybe… Whenever I watch these shows, I always look up to see if the people on them are still together (to my roommates dismay because I always ruin it) because I love when I find couples that are still together, or married or have a family. For me, there is something so incredible about watching two people fall in love (even if it might not be real), I think because sometimes we think about romantic relationships and falling in love as like this big mysterious “thing that happens” rather than from a more scientific/evolutionary standpoint. Anyway, I loved reading about the role of perspective taking in romantic relationships as Tyler you wrote about it– I cringe so hard and can’t even watch when Matt sends people home because sometimes they are so shocked it hurts me to watch. And Yufeng, this affective forecasting and the mixing of friendship/sexual cues was so interesting to think about– and made me think about the movie When Harry Met Sally as a big part of that rom com is about how friendship and sexual attraction can get messy or co-exist. Anyway, loved reading!! -Tess

  • Kara Evans // Apr 5th 2021 at 1:38 am

    Tyler, woohoo for the continuation of the Reality TV theme! Truly a testament to what we have had to fill our time with for this past year. Regarding the shows you discussed, they indeed are such testaments to the role of perspective-taking in relationships. If they could not be on the same “level” in how they viewed one another, it was rather predictive of their outcome. Although it is ultimately fabricated entertainment, I agree with you that there is a truth about real-life perspective-taking in the story. Also, your discussion of Ramezani et. al. (2020) reminded me of the classic couples’ therapy exercise of “pretending” one is their partner and describing how a certain problem makes them feel from their perspective. I have only seen depictions of this exercise and don’t know if that is actually what happens, but it would make sense that perspective-taking is a recommended approach to solving issues couples face!
    Yufeng, I thought your discussion of uncertainty in romantic cues as signal detection was super interesting. The visualization of false/true positives/negatives within the SDT distributions is a great way to visualize our recognition of romantic cues. It is even more effective in describing differences between individuals’ recognition of romantic cues. I wonder how the distributions would separate as a variable such as dating experience increases. If one has more exposure to those cues, do they get better at correctly identifying the true state of the world (in this case, whether or not the person was platonically or romantically interested)? Very interesting research!

    Thanks for a great read! – Kara

  • Ellie Harvie // Apr 5th 2021 at 8:23 pm

    Hey guys! This was such an interesting read and I’m really glad you both dug a little deeper on how perspective taking influences romanic relationships. Tyler – You make a great point about reality TV spotlighting the importance of perspective taking (and the detrimental effect of failing to do so). Your section left me wondering about the balance between getting to know someone and getting to know how they see the word/their perspective. Both are definitely vital to a healthy relationship, but I was curious whether focusing almost entirely on one would have better outcomes than the other, especially in these shows where they don’t know each other to begin with! (P.S. I actually know someone who was on Married at First Sight on Season 11; so funny that you brought that one up!) Yufeng – I love the idea of forecasting when it comes to determining how others feel about us. I’ve never really thought about it as something that can be improved/studied similar to statistics, mainly due to the emotional context which accompanies attraction. I wonder how many of the cues including impact of sensitivity and/or liberal and conservative nature, etc. we can accurately identify and use to make decisions in the moment. Can we actually use each of these as solutions, or simply examine them in hindsight due to our human nature to be so emotional? These are just some of my thoughts, great job y’all!
    -Ellie

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